By Barbara Sherf

Lafayette Hill resident and Lafayette College senior Rachel Ingber sits in the family kitchen with gifts to give. Ingber is studying whether low-income women prefer gift cards to other presents. The results are due out this spring. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

For those of you who are still perplexed about what to do with that not-so-unique, not-exactly wanted gift you received at Christmas, Lafayette Hill resident Rachel Ingber is studying the science behind gift-giving.

Ingber, 21, a graduate of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, is majoring in Math and Economics at Lafayette College. In her spare time, she works at and has volunteered many hours over the past three years with the college’s Landis Community Outreach Center. The center has a program in which students and staff work with the local Nurse Family Partnership, giving presents to 160 or so first-time mothers and their babies.

Ingber watched in awe as recipients would receive a sweater or jeans that they didn’t like or that didn’t fit, only to be thrown into a closet and never worn. “The donor was in essence wasting his/her time and money because the gift wasn’t being used. From a financial standpoint, it just didn’t make sense to me,” said Ingber, sitting in the living room of the family home over winter break. She decided to examine the economics of gift giving, and brought the idea to Chris Ruebeck, associate professor of economics at Lafayette. He suggested that she read “Scroogenomics,” by economist Joel Waldfogel.

“He argues that the value of a gift is only as great as the recipient’s appreciation,” said Ingber. Waldfogel believes that gift cards bring the most joy because the recipients can buy what they want. But critics of gift cards argue that the plastic cards don’t seem as thoughtful, and they cite the strings attached to the cards; like expiration dates and stores going out of business.

Ingber set up a study to consider whether certain socio-economic groups value gift cards over actual gifts. This past holiday season she was busy distributing $25 Wal-Mart and Target gift cards, along with colorful packages containing toys and books for the children and new mothers.

Ingber is back in Easton surveying the recipients to determine whether they prefer the gift cards to actual gifts. She is hopeful the study will determine what the Nurse Family Partnership will give to recipients in the 2011 holiday season.

“We want to improve their lives, but still make the holidays meaningful,” said Ingber. “It will be interesting to see. Maybe they will choose a combination of gift card and something personal to open. I hope so because I love giving gifts.”

She will defend her proposal this spring.

Upon graduating in May, Ingber hopes to land a job in the field of philanthropy. “While I really like giving gifts,” she said, “I will do so based on the results of the study.”

Barbara Sherf is a frequent contributor to the Local and a publicist. She can be reached at 215-233-8022 or Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.